Tag Archives: Teaching

Early Career Academics in English Studies discussion day

On Thursday 2nd June I attended Early Career Academics in English Studies discussion day at King’s College London, hosted by the English Association and University English, looking ahead to the English Shared Futures conference in Newcastle next year. I was pleased to be invited to introduce a session on “Balancing Teaching and Research”, in which I focused on the challenges, strategies, and benefits of balancing teaching and research, with a few thoughts looking ahead to the next few years. I post these notes below and would be interested to hear others’ thoughts on these issues.

As I see it, the core issue that ECRs face in the current environment is that of building up a profile of publications that makes them competitive for permanent Research & Teaching lectureships, while working on teaching-only/teaching-heavy contracts (often balancing multiple jobs).

The challenges of these contracts are well-known: heavy teaching-loads; career mobility (time spent moving; start-up investment in teaching new courses and/or teaching across 2+ institutions); lack of research time, as well as access to funding for research and conferences, and mentoring; and the difficulties of long-term research planning while on fixed-term contracts. This can quite easily lead to a vicious cycle of getting stuck on T-only contracts because the research profile can’t be given the time and attention needed to break into the permanent posts.

Strategies: even small improvements can aid this. At institutional level there are small but significant steps that can vastly improve a T-only contract: speaking from my own experience this year at Newcastle University, having a research day, access to a research budget, participating in professional development and research progress reviews, and the guidance of a mentor, have all meant that in my 10-month post I’ve been able to advance my research profile in very beneficial ways.

At an individual level, ECRs can help themselves: creating a sound publication strategy and some degree of long-term planning, i.e. making sure that what is published is of the highest quality, will have maximum effect in REF cycles, and keeps a 5-year goal in sight in order to ensure that there is a clear trajectory to and rationale behind publications. I say “ECRs can help themselves”, but mentoring, be it formal or informal, is absolutely crucial here to advise and support ECRs on how best to focus and achieve these goals. For me, mentoring was especially beneficial in keeping the long-term view in sight (not easy when you’re caught up in the whirlwind of new modules) and made sure that I could really strategise my energies in the best possible way.

Benefits: it’s easy to focus on the negatives, but balancing teaching and research can be hugely beneficial; the best teaching is informed by being research-active and, I think, the opposite is also true. Having moved from a public engagement (admin-heavy) and research role to my current teaching and research role, I have found it much easier to switch between the two in the latter: teaching keeps my mind in the same intellectual zone, stimulates new thoughts about research, in a way that I didn’t find with my admin post, which required more of a mental switch between the two.

Challenges going forward: the situation isn’t getting any easier with increasing casualisation and my work on the impact of the REF 2014 on ECRs showed that the teaching-and-research balancing act became particularly acute for many around the time of the last REF. There have been recent proposals that all staff including T-only should be submitted to REF. I am in two minds about this. In some respects this is excellent: it prevents the two-tier structure that can keep ECRs trapped in the t-only cycle, it encourages beneficial links between T and R in ways that are beneficial for both staff and students, and if done well it would ensure that all ECRs are supported in being active researchers. At the same time I truly worry that for those on unsupported T-only contracts this will be yet another pressure in an already highly pressurized system, that it will create unrealistic standards and expectations for those already at breaking point. I think this is a real and pressing danger that needs to be well thought out before any such proposals are seen through.

Further thoughts reflecting on the day

In light of this, it was especially interesting to hear Professor Clare Lees address the issue of the REF, speaking from her experience as a panel member and how this differs to much of the perception of how the REF peer review process works. Hearing more about this is really reassuring and helpful for ECRs (and I imagine others in the system); as I mentioned today, the key issue my work on the REF raised was that of communication, or the lack thereof, about the REF to ECRs and how this creates much anxiety and misperception. Hopefully the issue of communicating to and with ECRs can be better addressed in the next cycle.

I also wanted to add a further point about the long-term plan noted above; there was a lot of agreement with the idea that this is impossible on fixed term contracts, while I had (briefly) suggested the opposite can be true. To qualify that: I agree that it is impossible to make a plan in terms of where or what type of job one will be on in several years time, and a largely pointless exercise to try and strategise in this way; much is luck and right place, right time.

I do, however, think that it is possible to forge a plan of where you want to be intellectually- your ambitions for where you see yourself positioned in the field, what kind of critical advances you want to be making – and to strategise about how you might get there through publications, funding grants,  and so on. Of course this will change and evolve over time. But I think that doing so helps create a clear sense of direction and ensures best use of your time: making sure that you focus your energies on going to the right conferences, writing the best articles, and applying for the most relevant grants. Not only is this strategic but, I think, can be hugely important to your sense of identity as an ECR, helping to keep in view an idea of who you are and what you want to achieve as a researcher – something so easily lost within the flux of short-term contracts, but so integral to keeping focused on the end goal that will make the fixed-term years worth it.

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Teaching with blogs

As some readers will know, as well as research blogging I also run a teaching blog for my classes on The English Nineteenth Century Novel. The blog has been featured in the Journal of Victorian Culture Online’s Teaching and Learning Showcase, where I write about how I use the blog and the advantages of doing so.

The showcase has featured a rich range of teaching methods, covering everything from digital resources, creative assignments, and field trips; if you’re a Victorianist who teaches then do take a look!

Borders in the Long 19th Century @ Loughborough, 13th January 2012

This joint meeting of the Midlands Interdisciplinary Victorian Studies Seminar (MIVSS) and the Midlands Romantic Seminar (MRS) focused on the idea of borders and periodisation in the long nineteenth century, particularly thinking about the Romantic-Victorian border: where do we draw the line between Romantics and Victorians in teaching and research, what purposes do they serve, and what about the grey areas in between?

I only attended the afternoon sessions, which began with Julian North speaking about “teaching and researching across the Romantic/Victorian border“, and it’s this paper which I want to focus on here. Julian started by discussing the plurality of Rom/Vic borders, suggesting the possible dates that might be chosen – the beginning of Victoria’s reign in 1837, the deaths of the Romantic poets in the 1820s, the Reform Bill of 1832 – the possibilities are endless and always problematic in their attempt to neatly define the end/ beginning of an era. From my perspective, I’d suggest the coming of the railway in the 1830s as the decisive moment separating the Romantics and Victorians: Thackeray’s comment that “we who have lived before the railways were made, belong to another world … It was only yesterday; but what a gulf between now and then!” encapsulates the sense of the railway creating the world anew, but even with this we can’t neatly date “the coming of the railway” (the Stockton-Darlington railway in 1825? the first passenger line between Liverpool and Manchester in 1830? or the spread of the railways in the “mania” of the 1840s?). Or from a global perspective,we might take 1815, the re-opening of continental borders at the end of the Napoleonic wars, as signalling the first moves into a new era of global modernity.

Turner, "Rain, Steam, Speed"

 

Julian North also thought about the motives for imposing and crossing borders – something, it emerged later in the discussion, that is particularly a product of literary studies (and perhaps history of art), rather than history where the borders tend to depend on the specific research project. Periodisation was posed as a product itself of the Victorian period: the impulse in Victorian biography to impose a sharp distinction between the Romantic and Victorian periods- a generational conflict, in which the Victorians assert themselves as the responsible grown-ups to the young, immature Romantics.

The borders for teaching purposes were also raised: how do we define a module, what kind of borders do we construct within and around it, and what does this say to students about the period they’re studying? How do we teach the nuances of different parts of the periods in question, and how much does it matter? I wondered here too about generic differences: are the Rom/Vic borders more clearly defined or more easily imposed, perhaps, with regards to poetry (neatly divided here between term 1 on the Romantics, term 2 on the Victorians) than with the novel? The 19th century novel course on which I teach moves back and forth within the period 1800-1899 at various points as it’s structured thematically rather than chronologically; and as a result, we rather quietly cross – or rather, leap – over the problematic Rom/Vic area: there’s a noticeable gap in our chronology of texts from Austen in 1814 to Emily Bronte in 1848. Arguably when teaching the novel it’s the mid-century period where things begin to get really interesting (I’m biased, yes) but that’s not to say there isn’t a lot of interesting work going on around the Rom/Vic borderlines and it is of course indicative to think about the kinds of negotiations in literary form going on around that period, and how that leads the way for what feels more firmly established by the later decades.

The question of the end-point of the century was also discussed – are the 1890s the start of a new period completly defined from what comes before? – and I’ll be thinking about these questions more over the next few weeks as we move into the later nineteenth-century and start to think about what kind of meaningful connections are to be made (or not) both with the mid-century and across the period as a whole.

The MIVSS/ MRS event also raised some interesting questions around collecting objects, with Kate Hill’s paper on Romantic and Victorian collections, which was pertinent in light of this cfp for a conference on “Transforming Objects” which was recently announced – I’m considering revisiting a short section of the thesis on foreign objects in the Victorian novel, which will provide a nice change of direction to all the Dickensian mobility of late.

“The Waste Land” for iPad

Following on from my previous musings on this subject, the first scholarly edition designed for the iPad was launched yesterday – an app of TS Eliot’s The Waste Land. I haven’t purchased it yet, and I won’t be rushing to (it’s £7.99 – pretty expensive as apps go, and it’s not a text that I teach or research so my decent and well-annotated edition serves me well enough) but the Guardian videocast (linked above) and description on the Apple Apps store give a good idea of the features. My first impressions are that it looks like a well thought out and potentially very useful material: the surrounding material includes critical commentary and annotations, recordings of the text by Eliot, Ted Hughes, and a filmed performance of Fiona Shaw’s reading, as well as facsimile manuscript pages. All of this is not only very helpful for student use, but especially so in the way that it’s been designed for use on the iPad – the ease with which you can switch between recordings, watch video alongside text, and bring up different recordings all make use of the iPad’s features and the simultaneity of different media the iPad allows for that you just can’t get as easily on a Pc.

WL app

(Screenshot from the Apple website, where more info and screenshots are available)

It strikes me that this would be a very useful teaching tool – recordings and manuscript versions are resources that I use in teaching Ginsberg’s Howl, and having such an app would handily cut out the sometimes tedious work of compiling resources before a class- no more trawling the internet to find the best recording, or trying to get a good photocopy of poor-quality manuscript pages, it’s all just there and readily available on an easily portable object. But the size of the iPad and it’s lack of connectivity to an external device means this isn’t going to work for anything more than a seminar, and even then it’s limited if you want the students to interact with their own copy of the material; and once the students leave the classroom it’s useless unless they own iPads (and if they did, would I recommend they buy the iPad edition over the printed text? Unlikely).

I also wonder at how far the usefulness of these extra materials goes; visual and auditory media might stimulate some aspects of seminar discussion, and having annotations for a complex text like The Waste Land are undoubtely valuable in freeing-up discussion time that might otherwise be spent simply explaining the many references and intertextual points; so with a text like this, you can cut out some of that textual work and move more swiftly to the critical analysis. But at the end if all this, it’s the text itself that really matters and the students’ interpretations and responses to that which I’m really interested in getting to in the seminar – the extra media and material provides the stimulus for that, but I wonder if having all of this in such a format enables or inhibits the individual response? Is this all that different to the usual scholarly annotated edition? It feels to me as though having all of this material compiled together might somewhat inhibit the student response outside of those parameters- there seems to be something formalised and thus limiting about the material being set in screen, as though this is all the “right” material that one needs to understand the text, perhaps? There’s also something about the barrier I feel this puts between the reader and text – from my brief experiences in reading on the iPad for my own research, I do feel at one remove from the text; without getting all nostalgic about the look and feel of a book, you can’t scribble notes or underline the etext, it doesn’t feel you can make it your own in the same way. And although there’s an ease to reading and moving around material quickly on the iPad screen, the easy skimming through the text further encourages a move away from slow and detailed reading and the response that such a reading generates.

Despite these reservations I’d certainly be willing to give this a go if there was a similar app for a text I teach, and it’d be interesting to see if this could enhance teaching and learning, and how students and tutors might use this as a starting-point for more interactive work.